Since humans first went up in space in 1961, we’ve done a poor job of keeping it clean. NASA currently estimates that there are some 21,000 pieces of space junk larger than a softball orbiting the Earth and 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. Since the debris travels at speeds of up to 17,500 mph, they could damage a satellite or spacecraft.
Just last week an 18-ton Chinese rocket passed over Los Angeles and New York City’s Central Park before falling into the Atlantic Ocean.
The estimated 8,800 tons of objects that humans have left in space are becoming a danger. Near misses are common these days. Last September there was one between Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellite and one from the European Space Agency.
But so far, there has been just one major collision: In 2009 American satellite Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251, a Russian satellite, crashed, destroying both over northern Siberia.
In January a satellite run by AT&T’s DirecTV was found to be in danger of exploding and needed to be moved or else it could harm other satellites. Since that time, no action has been taken. Meanwhile, in late April the FCC voted to require more disclosures from satellite operators seeking licenses but declined to introduce any new laws governing the removal of orbital debris.
Companies rush to address the problem
According to experts, the problem is projected to get worse. By 2025 as many as 1,100 satellites could be launching each year. The number of satellites orbiting Earth is projected to quintuple over the next decade.
Astroscale, one of the few companies whose mission is to clean up such space debris, is leading the charge to clean up our space pathways and avoid collisions among the objects that humans recently have left in space. The Japanese company is currently working with Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to carry out the agency’s Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration (CRD2) project.